Who Searches for the Lost?

“Who Searches for the Lost?”

Luke 15 word cloud

Luke 15:1-10 – September 15, 2019

Are you familiar with a lost-and-found box? A box full of lost belongings, perhaps at the senior center near your house, or at the school your children or grandchildren attend? Or, at the YMCA near my husband’s and my condominium? All kinds of lost valuables can be found there—valuable to someone—lost things someone is diligently searching for.

Before we get to the lost things talked about in this bible reading, we need to set the scene. The Rabbi Jesus is again eating with those nasty social outcasts, the tax collectors, and other outcast people who are labelled “sinners.” We talked about them two weeks ago, when we had the Gospel reading about Zacchaeus the tax collector. I mentioned how horrified the “decent folks” in Jericho felt about a respectable Jewish Rabbi like Jesus eating with a tax collector like Zacchaeus.

Horrible! Outrageous! Simply scandalous! But, isn’t this just like Jesus? Always doing the unexpected? Always going out of His way to do the next loving thing?

Let’s see how Dr. Luke sets up this scene. “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the Jewish law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Here we have real outcasts—yes, racially and ethnically they might be Jewish, but the “decent folks” would not have anything to do with these Jewish tax collectors and other sinners. These outcasts were not even allowed into the synagogues, so they could not join with their communities in worship. Imagine, being forbidden to enter a house of worship because of who you are and how you make a living. How isolating, and how demeaning. But, that is not all. Verse 2 tells us the “righteous, decent folks” were outraged and upset that these outcasts and sinners were even listening to the Rabbi Jesus, much less eating with Him. Imagine, a respectable Rabbi eating dinner with the likes of them??

The very next verses show us Jesus telling a parable. We do not know whether Jesus was telling the parable gently and earnestly, or cynically, trying to make a challenging point. Sometimes we can tell, from context clues, but here we are not sure. These words are recorded by Dr. Luke: “Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?”

Here our trusty, loving, compassionate Rabbi tells a story about one hundred sheep. These sheep are not labelled “good” or “bad.” The lost sheep is doing just what sheep do – sheep wander.

This parable reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with my father-in-law, who is now deceased. My father-in-law grew up on a farm in Iowa during the 1930’s, and his parents kept all kinds of animals: chickens, cattle, pigs, and…sheep.

My father-in-law told me a number of things about sheep. Sheep are timid and anxious, and they startle easily. Sheep are by turns stubborn and frightened, willful and easily led. Sheep are not particularly smart. Did I mention my father-in-law said sheep were stubborn, and they often wandered off and went their own way? The lost sheep is doing just what sheep habitually do – sheep wander.

Both the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament describe the nation of Israel and the Jewish people as sheep. I suspect that most everyone listening to the Rabbi Jesus understood these basic features of keeping sheep. (Not so much today, with the urbanization of people hearing the Gospel message, and the distance of people from a rural setting.)

In this parable, Jesus mentions a shepherd with one hundred sheep. One of them gets lost. One out of one hundred is only one percent. In modern terms of data marketing and warehouse management, one percent is usually an acceptable percentage of shrinkage. After all, the shepherd has ninety-nine other sheep in front of him. One little sheep is an acceptable loss.

Except, this is not an acceptable loss to Jesus. The difference is this particular Good Shepherd.

Here is the end of Luke’s parable: “And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’”

This parable has been interpreted in various ways, but I would like to highlight the actions of the sheep. Sheep—I mean, people get lost. Sheep—I mean, people wander. People are human. It is human nature to wander away, sometimes, and get lost.

Jesus does not differentiate between sheep that are “sinner” or “outcast,” and “righteous” sheep—and neither should we.

Finally, the aftermath of this story, as told by Jesus: “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

Dr. Lois Malcolm of Luther Seminary mentions “We should note, however, that the emphasis here is not on a contrast between two different types of people: “tax collectors and sinners” versus “Pharisees and scribes.” ….Tax collectors were corrupt, dishonest, and had colluded with the Roman Empire. By contrast, the Pharisees and scribes were the religious leaders of the day, much like professional clergy [and the church leaders] in our time.” [1]

Yet, Jesus classifies them all as sheep, both the decent, “righteous” folk as well as the tax collectors and sinners. Sheep are not particularly smart. Sometimes, these stubborn sheep willfully stray, and straggle on the path, and go their own way. That is what sheep—and humans—do. That is just built in, in the basic nature of sheep—and humans.

As Dr. Malcolm says, “The shepherd evokes images of a God who not only actively seeks out individuals who are lost — note the emphasis on the “one” out of the ninety-nine – but also rejoices when they are found. This God is not a tyrant who demands subservience to impossible demands, but rather a God who actively seeks restoration: “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6; Psalm 86:15, etc.).” [2]

The Rev. Alyce McKenzie relates “One Sunday morning several years ago, on my way into the church our family attended in Pennsylvania, I spotted the Lost and Found box in the entry way and decided to look through it to see if I could find my son’s missing blue mitten.

There was no blue mitten in it, but there was a pair of glasses in there. A set of keys. A watch. There is a lot that can show up in the lost and found box of your life lying in there unclaimed while you go about your ministry.” [3]

We can all thank God that Jesus, our Good Shepherd, does come looking for us when we are lost, wherever we may be, even if it takes a long time. Getting lost is a very sheep-like—and human—thing to do. We can celebrate that our loving, caring Savior actively seeks us out, puts us on His shoulders, and restores us to the joy of our salvation.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1782

Commentary, Luke 15:1-10, Lois Malcolm, at WorkingPreacher.org, Luther Seminary, 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/lost-found-alyce-mckenzie-09-09-2013.html

“Lost and Found,” Alyce M McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 2013.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Sought by God

“Sought by God”

luke-15-lost-word-cloud

Luke 15:1-10 – September 11, 2016

Many people have expectations of leaders and important people. I am not sure whether these expectations are realistic or not, but regardless—many people do have them. Think of teachers or professors. Executive directors, or CEOs. Partners in executive firms, or coaches of athletic teams. And—what about pastors and ministers? Leaders of houses of faith? Do people have expectations of them? Sometimes, unrealistic or disapproving expectations? Of course they do.

Here in Luke 15 we have a crowd of tax collectors and “sinners” gathered around the Rabbi Jesus. But, the Pharisees and teachers of the Mosaic Law Code—the righteous religious people—were disapproving. These self-righteous folk had misconceptions. They had the wrong kind of expectations about how the Rabbi Jesus was “supposed to” minister. Imagine that!

Let’s take a step back, and look at the setting of this passage for today. Luke 15:1-2 tells us that the Rabbi Jesus ”welcomes sinners and eats with them.” It seems to be the case that Jesus was the host at dinner—at least, part of the time. But that isn’t the main thing, for the self-righteous folks. What about those tax collectors and “sinners?” What was the matter with them?

Yes, it was all about those evil, disreputable “sinners.” The people who did not keep the Mosaic Law Code were considered “sinners,” by the orthodox, observant Jews. A Pharisee and any of his family were forbidden to have anything to do with “those people.” No business dealings, and certainly no meals together.  According to the Pharisees and teachers of the law, Jesus was mixing in really bad company, especially for a decent, self-respecting Rabbi. At least—that was an unrealistic expectation a lot of people had about Him.

Luke chapter 15 is all about Jesus telling three stories. The first two stories—the two parables we had read to us in our Gospel passage today—could be about anyone, anyone at all. Not necessarily about Pharisees, observant people who were extremely strict about keeping the Mosaic Law, but about anyone. Anyone at all.

Do you remember high school groups and cliques? The popular kids, the cool kids. The math nerds, the science geeks. The jocks, the honors students. The Pharisees and teachers of the Mosaic Law considered themselves to be the ultra-cool kids. The kids who wouldn’t hang out with anyone else. They were the only kids who were going to make it into the presence of God. Everyone else? Tough luck. No way. Maybe—just maybe if the other people followed the Mosaic Law especially closely, dotting every “I” and crossing every “t”. Maybe, just maybe, God would allow the other groups and cliques into heaven, too.

What does Jesus say to these ultra-cool kids, these Pharisees and teachers of the Law, He tells some stories. The first story is about a shepherd and his hundred sheep. It was hard work being a shepherd. There was not a lot of arable pasture land in Palestine. Being a shepherd took a great deal of grit, persistence, and self-sacrifice. In this story, the shepherd lost one of his sheep—one out of one hundred.

To today’s loss prevention and quality assurance mindset, one sheep lost out of one hundred was an acceptable loss. Think of the rough and rocky terrain. Expecting a shepherd to keep track of all hundred sheep? To some people, that could be an unrealistic expectation. Shrinkage happens. It isn’t a huge deal. Except—to that one little lost sheep. What’s more, shepherds were excellent at tracking. They were personally responsible for each sheep under their care.

Let’s take a look at the second story. The Rabbi Jesus tells a parable about a woman. (Unusual for the Bible! Out of the ordinary for Jesus, too.) Reading from Luke 15:8-9, “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ “

This second parable is a similar story about a lost thing. The typical Palestinian home was not huge. One room, two at most. Can you imagine this woman, losing a precious silver coin? The interior of the house probably did not have many windows. So even in the daytime the interior was dark, necessitating the lighting of a lamp. Can you see her sweeping carefully, methodically, listening for the clink of a metal coin?

The woman’s coin was lost. It didn’t grow legs and run away. All the same, the coin was lost. The sheep may have strayed away, but it still got lost. Both parables have lost things. What is to be done?        

Let’s go back to the ultra-cool kids, the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. If you can imagine such a thing, they avoided all contact with anyone—anyone at all—who did not keep the Mosaic Law Code to the absolute maximum degree. If you can go a further step in your imagination, these ultra-cool, ultra-strict Jews looked forward to the destruction of the “sinners.” Not, as Jesus said in 15:7, ”I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” And in 15:10,  10 ”In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

This is something radically different. Jesus sends a message of lost and found. Jesus sends the welcoming message to everyone, to anyone, a message of radical welcome. At least, as far as the Pharisees and teachers of the law are concerned.

Both of these parables are about God seeking the lost. How dare God forgive sinners! This is about false expectations about God, just as much as Pharisees had false expectations about Jesus.

Do we have false expectations about God? Is there someone who we don’t think God should look for? The woman in the parable was diligent in finding that lost coin. The shepherd was determined to seek out that lost sheep.

As one of the commentators on this passage said, “Many of the flocks were communal flocks, belonging, not to individuals, but to villages. There would be two or three shepherds in charge. Those whose [sheep] were safe would arrive home on time and bring news that one shepherd was still out on the mountain side searching for a sheep which was lost. The whole village would be upon the watch. When, in the distance, they saw the shepherd striding home with the lost sheep across his shoulders, there would rise from the whole community a shout of joy and of thanksgiving.” [1]

Do we have faulty expectations about God? Or, is the woman from the parable diligent to search and search, turn her whole house topsy turvy until she finds that lost coin? Is the Great Shepherd of the sheep concerned about absolutely every sheep that wanders away—no matter what? That is the picture Jesus paints for us in these two parables. God knows the joy of finding someone who was lost. No Pharisee ever dreamed of a God like that, a God with extravagant welcome, a God who would seek and save the lost, no matter what.

And both parables? They end with a grand celebration. “Then the shepherd calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” God does not want sinners—or anyone else—to be lost. These stories from Jesus illustrate that the goodness and mercy of God is for everyone, especially the most neglected and despised. Truly, good news for us all. Alleluia, amen!

 

[1] Barclay, William, The Gospel of Luke (The Daily Study Bible Series), (Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1975).

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)